Al Hijra/Rosh Hashana

This year, the Islamic New Year coincided with the start of the Jewish New Year celebration. Let this be a harbinger of peace among all the Abrahamic peoples, and all the peoples of the earth.

Salaam aleikum. Shalom Alekhem.

Sermon preached at Christ Church, Lanark, on 28 February, 2016 (Lent 3)

Lk. 13:1–9

Last week, I purchased a birthday present for my wife. I searched for it online, in the course of which I discovered I could arrange to collect it on a stated day from a location near to where we live. In due course I received a text message telling me to check my e-mail, which would contain a bar code, which I was to print out and take to the collection point, along with some form of photo ID.

So far, so efficient; but also so impersonal, and so super-contractual. For although I had agreed to purchase the item, and paid online, I could not receive the package into my hands unless all the paperwork was in order. The bar code was useless without the photo ID, and vice-versa.

It set me thinking about how much of our interaction with others is contractual. Every day we enter into binding arrangements which impose obligations – to provide goods or services in exchange for payment, or to incur penalties in case of default. Our society makes intensive use of the discourse of entitlement, and much of our interaction is predicated on a system of rewards and punishments – every quid has a quo.

Even some of our intimate relationships with family and friends can have contractual character: ‘If you give up smoking, I’ll take you on a cruise to the Bahamas’ (‘and if you don’t, I’ll take you on a cruise to Rockall and leave you there’).

But God doesn’t make contracts with us, nor should we try to make contracts with God, even though we do it all the time, especially in Lent: ‘If I give up wine or chocolate for six weeks, can my daughter get that place in university she has applied for?’

True relationships, relationships of value, between humanity and God, and among human beings made in God’s image, are not contractual but covenantal. A covenant is a relationship of support and trust, in short, of love. We speak of marriage as a contract, and in respect of its legal status it is. But as an interpersonal commitment to lifetime fidelity, patience and support, it is, or should be, a covenant.

The trouble is, we go on thinking of our relationship with God in contractual and legal terms. So sin is thought of as the infringement of a rule, for which we have to pay a penalty. Today’s gospel provides a good example of our tendency to assume that evil and suffering are punishment for sin: those whom Pilate killed, and those on whom the tower of Siloam fell, must have been very wicked. Most of us can remember the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when many people professing to be Christians were only too eager to say that this devastating illness was ‘the wages of sin’.

If our relationships, with God and with each other, are truly covenantal, impairment of any relationship is primarily a failure of trust and love. To be sure, there are occasions when restitution (say, of improperly obtained wealth) is a contractual necessity if the relationship is ever to be healed. But this is only the first step, and real restoration of trust and love can only happen through repentance and forgiveness.

Repentance is not quid-pro-quo restitution, but an acknowledgement of failure. It involves trusting that we shall be forgiven; it means dropping our defences and accepting our vulnerability. Jesus’ statement in today’s gospel (‘unless you repent, you will all perish as they did’ [Lk. 13:3, 5]) is not a threat or a statement about punishment or penalty, but a recognition of the destructive effects of lack of repentance, which is essentially the refusal to trust, to acknowledge our failure.

But what is the parable of the fig tree doing here? It provides a strange and seemingly irrelevant coda to the passage, but it is one of the many expressions in the Bible of the theme of the second chance, of the new beginning, of God’s patience. Time and time again, the Old Testament shows God ‘repenting of the evil which he had intended to do’. Even at the very end of the last book in the Bible, Revelation, that favourite of many a fundamentalist, with its dire warnings and terrifying images, the angel says (Rev. 22:10-11): ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.’

Rowan Williams has said somewhere that hell can be envisaged as a place where God is trying to push the door open while those inside struggle to keep it shut. What these words from Revelation suggest is that up to very last second of time, God holds door open to our repentance and return, for God’s generosity and patience are infinite. If we want to enter into true Christian freedom, we have to realise this, not just in our minds, but in the depths of our being.

Lent, then, is not a time of ‘doing things’ or imposing mortifications in order to redress the contractual balance, but a time when we reflect on whether we are living as people of the covenant, a covenant of love and trust in one who is infinitely generous and patient:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts (Is. 55:8-9).


I’ve been away from blogging nearly two years, and it’s time I made the effort again. My illness in 2014 and my recovery period rather upset the rhythm, and I got lazy about taking it up again.

Anyway, it seems that some of the congregations I visit during vacancies are interested in some of my sermons being given a wider accessibility, so here is what I said on Sunday, when we celebrated the feast of the Presentation:

‘Lk 2:22–40

The story of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple is characteristic of Luke’s generally serene and uplifting tone. Joseph and Mary travel to Jerusalem in the confidence that they are doing the correct thing required by the Law of God in presenting their child in the Temple and carrying out the required rituals.

– Simeon has lived all his life looking forward with quiet trust to the time when the faith of Israel will be vindicated, and the Messiah will appear to inaugurate God’s rule. We meet him at the very moment when his hope is justified, when he finally knows that salvation is at hand, and that he can depart this life in peace.

– Finally, the narrative of the return to Galilee speaks of a family settling down to a happy and fulfilled home-life in ‘their own town’, where, we may infer, they are known and respected: ‘The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him’ (2.40).

This picture of peace, growth and fulfilment depicts not only an ideal of domestic harmony, but it is close to shalom, the essential characteristic of the Kingdom of God as described throughout both the OT and the NT.

And yet…and yet…

– Luke’s optimism is always tempered by a healthy dash of realism. The child Jesus, as he reaches maturity, will of course cause the ‘rising’ of many of those he encounters, i.e., will heal their wounds, liberate them from guilt, and open up hitherto unseen vistas of new possibilities, of a different kind of life.

– But he is also destined for the ‘falling’ of many. He will be ‘a sign that will be opposed’ (2.34). The tranquil life of his home in Nazareth will be shattered by his determination to follow his destiny, even to death.

– A sword will pierce the soul of his parents, especially his mother; his family will be bewildered and hurt by his behaviour, to the point where they will seek to restrain him and obstruct his mission.

– During his public ministry, his teaching, and, above all, what he does and what he is will challenge those who are comfortably settled in their conventional ways. The religious establishment will be outraged by his easy-going approach to Sabbath observance, ritual purity and social hierarchies. And they will resent being jerked out of their comfort zones to the point where they will kill the bearer of the Good News.

All through his public ministry, Jesus failed, for the most part, to convince his followers that discipleship was costly, and, especially, that his mission would lead to his death.

– Peter, vehemently denying that this would happen, was sharply put in his place with the rebuke, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’.

– Arguably, one of the ironies in the NT is that possibly the only person who really understood the demands of discipleship was the rich young man who came to Jesus seeking to know what he was required to do, but went away sorrowful because he was unwilling to accept that if he took Jesus’s invitation seriously, he would have to change, and change to the point where his wealth ceased to be his personal possession, but became the means of compassionate service of the poor.

Many of us, like that young man, understand the demands of discipleship all too well.

– How far do we embrace them?

– Or do we, too, turn aside sorrowful?

– We are called to follow the gospel in the first instance in the circumstances in which we are placed. Nevertheless, the stark, uncompromising challenge remains.

– If we truly respond to Christ’s call, we cannot set prior limits to our response, cannot make the mental reservation that we will follow him only so long as he doesn’t unsettle us and lead us where we don’t wish to go.

One person who knew all about the cost of discipleship was the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Before he died, he wrote these words about discipleship: ‘It is nothing else than bondage to Jesus Christ alone, completely breaking through every programme, every set of laws…Beside Jesus nothing has any significance. He alone matters’.

The babe in arms taken to the Temple rightly conjures up a reassuring image of vulnerability, tenderness and love.

But Jesus cannot be domesticated.

– As Rowan Williams has wittily expressed it, ‘God becomes our last and best alibi for not being disturbed.…The tightly swaddled baby is a gift-wrapped object, passive and docile for use in our business, our transactions; a lucky mascot; the sleeping partner in the firm’.

– But Jesus comes to offer not only what Simeon recognised as ‘the consolation of Israel’, but also to challenge us, to shake us out of our complacent, off-the-shelf religious ideas and practices. As Malachi reminds us, with his violent imagery of cleansing fire, ‘who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’

Most of us can say, without a trace of dishonesty: ‘This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made’. But there will be times when our souls are pierced by a sword:

– when betrayal by a friend whom we trusted shakes our faith in human nature;

– when the prevalence of violence and injustice in the world tempts us to despair;

– when we are faced with situations where the only ethical and Christian thing to do is to give up something we hold dear (a deep-seated prejudice, a job, a relationship).

The story of the Presentation in the Temple offers us the reassurance that if we respond to Jesus’ call, we will see salvation, and be a light to lighten the nations and to give glory to God’s people.



Recently our elder son commented on Facebook: ‘I wonder what would happen if we all gave up ‪#‎breakingnews for Lent? For me, ‪#‎slownews epitomizes the season of pause and reflection’.

This struck a chord with me, for there is so much pressure in our preaching during Lent constantly to emphasise discipline and austerity, something which, if you are an Anglican, our printed liturgies and prayers reinforce. Nothing wrong with discipline, so long as we recognise that it is needed all year round, not just in Lent. So long as we realise, too, that it can turn into a kind of reverse arrogance: ‘If only I could make myself a better person, I would be in better standing with God.’ Do we really suppose that we would ever reach perfection? If we persuaded ourselves that we had, would this not constitute pride, which can be guaranteed to lead us away from God towards our own self-preoccupation?

I was reflecting on these issues when I came across a passage from Martin Smith’s A Season for the Spirit (a title which is as good a description of the essence of Lent as one might wish). He says that hat we should give up is

‘resistance to the One who loves me infinitely more than I can guess, the One who is more on my side than I am myself. Dwelling on this thought of letting go, and handing myself over to the Spirit will bring me much closer to the experience of Jesus than the word “discipline” which so many of us have been trained to invoke at the beginning of Lent. It should help us smile at our anxious attempts to bring our life under control, the belt-tightening resolutions about giving up this or taking on that. What we are called to give up in Lent is control itself! Deliberate attempts to impose discipline on our lives often serve only to lead us further away from the freedom which Jesus attained through surrender to the Spirit, and promised to give’.

The hardest thing about Lent, and about the life of faith in general, is to accept the depth and breadth of God’s love for each one of us, to avoid what I would call ‘Yesbuttery’ You know the sort of thing: ‘God loves you’; ‘Yes, but… – I’m not a very charitable person / I don’t love God enough / I’m not grateful enough’. It’s as if we want to arrive at Easter entitled to give ourselves a pat on the back for what we have achieved on the way to self-perfection. Our lives will not be transformed by deliberate self-focused discipline, but by accepting that however much resistance we put up, nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Duine le Dhía

The phrase Duine le Dhía in Irish Gaelic is used of a person with cognitive impairment, and means ‘someone with God’. It is highly ambiguous, because at face value it can be taken to mean that the less mentally gifted a person is, the closer she/he is to God. It is commonly used by Gaelic speakers, however, to mean that persons so afflicted are deemed to be closer to God because their limited mental capacity makes them incapable of deliberate malice in thought or action. I recently conducted the funeral of just such a person, and it was abundantly clear that  what her family remember most about her is precisely her innocence of all malign intent. Despite all the negative medical predictions about her future quality of life when she was born, she proved to be gifted with an affectionate nature and a lively sense of humour.  She never lost either her interest in new things or her capacity to respond positively to both events and people.

Most people who are granted a certain length of years hope to be able to look back on at least a few achievements. The life of the mentally impaired would probably be deemed, by the conventional standards of society, to be devoid of anything that constitutes achievement, but by their very limitations they challenge such assumptions. Moreover, they pose a hard question to those of us who profess the  belief that no life is meaningless, and that no individual, whatever their capacities, is anything but precious and of equal importance in the sight of God.

By a wonderful appropriateness, the surname of the deceased person comes from Giolla Chríost, the servant of Christ. This she surely was, even if she would not have been aware of it, for simply by being herself she called forth the unstinting love and loyalty of others, and brought light and joy to their lives.

Taking care

I’m reading at the moment Eric Stoddart’s Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society: Watching and being Watched (Ashgate: Farnham and Burlington, 2011). Stoddart rightly recognises the legitimate anxieties most citizens harbour about surveillance, but also emphasises that surveillance can be undertaken for purposes of care. I was reminded of this at a recent meeting of the diocesan Ministry Development Review Supporters. Words like ‘review’ or ‘appraisal’ often evoke resistance among those on the receiving end, clergy being no more immune to this reaction than those who work in academic institutions, which is the environment I know best.

Review is often initially perceived as intrusive and threatening. My own experience of MDR, however, both as a review supporter and as a reviewee, suggests that the dimension of care is in practice uppermost. What struck me at the meeting in question was the degree of concern for the isolation experienced by clergy, especially full-time stipendiary clergy, and the unremitting nature of the demands made on them. A particular issue which is often overlooked, both by congregations and by church authorities, is the sense of bereavement that clergy are bound to experience when they retire from a ministry to which they have dedicated virtually all their waking hours. Sensitive application of mechanisms like MDR can be helpful, among other ways, in assisting clergy to prepare for retirement, and to develop (or recover) a life which is not wholly consumed by service to a congregation.

At the meeting, I announced that I wanted to retire from the role of MDR Supporter, one of several ‘ancillary’ ministerial jobs that I am gradually relinquishing.  I did so  in the belief that the care of ministerial colleagues demands a level of commitment and energy which I am finding harder to maintain as I get older.

Well done, Church of Ireland!

Joy and thankfulness that the Church of Ireland has elected the first woman bishop in these islands. Rev. Pat Storey, Rector of St Augustine’s, Derry, is to be the bishop of Meath and Kildare. And it is particularly satisfying that, for reasons which have to do with the history of that diocese, she will be known as ‘Most Reverend’. Alleluia!